Why do so many Americans today have such an unusual relationship with the law? Has the relative isolation of the pandemic made people more susceptible to crowd enthusiasms, and thus less respectful of authority? Or is it that their daily interactions with the internet are so frequent and intense that their emotions are governed by some new set of principles, and the law feels like a distant memory? Might some recent leaders have been setting bad examples when it comes to respecting the law?
If the U.S. is ever going to get back to normal, we need to understand this problem. It’s not just about breaking the law. It’s that so many Americans don’t even seem to notice that the law applies to them, too.
Yes the column has riffs on various recent episodes of brazen, poorly thought out law-breaking — did you have to put that Capitol selfie on-line? That was then, this is now:
During the era of civil disobedience, Americans marched for civil rights or to protest the Vietnam War. Sometimes they broke the law deliberately, but there was a finely honed sense of the various lines. If your goal was to be arrested, you knew how to achieve it without being locked away for years. There were guides for how to behave and get arrested, and many arrests were orchestrated.
Martin Luther King Jr. was not shocked when he ended up in Birmingham jail, where he composed his famous letter. Getting arrested was a sign of status with other members of the movement, and multiple arrests meant that you understood the lines well enough to be spending most of your time out in the world, ready to get arrested yet again.
So what happened?